According to the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants List, the best restaurant in the world is in New York: It's Eleven Madison Park and, if you're lucky enough to have $295 for dinner — per person, gratuity included, wine pairings not included — I'm pretty sure you would be in for the meal of your life. If, however, you do not have a collective grand to spend for a lavish tasting menu for two, with wine pairings, I have an alternate contender to propose.
Last week, I had dinner at a restaurant on the North Fork of Long Island. It was, in my opinion, the perfect meal — the kind that leaves you feeling full but not stuffed, challenged but still comforted. The service was attentive without being overbearing. Even better, it didn't require forking out half my month's salary or donning fancy attire. I wore a denim jacket. A fellow diner wore a T-shirt!
So what is this magical place, you may ask? It's the North Fork Table & Inn.
The restaurant had actually been on my radar for years — since it opened in 2006. Back then, the North Fork was not a serious dining destination; it was not really a destination, full stop. So when two New York chefs with fancy pedigrees decided to make a go of it, it was big news. For one reason or another, it took me another decade to go see for myself.
Now, this restaurant is not cheap: The six-course prix fixe is $125, plus an additional $35 for wine pairings. There's also a three-course prix fixe for $70, and you can order a la carte. Appetizers start at $14; entrees are $36 to $45. These prices place it in the spendy, special-occasion-meal category for sure. That said, it's not nearly as budget-busting as Eleven Madison Park. One might imagine dining here without subsisting on rice and beans for the rest of the month.
And then there's the fact that you can sidle up to the bar and get a burger or head to the food truck for lunch and get a killer lobster roll. In short, whatever your budget, you have options.
So, let me tell you about my dinner.
The evening started with an airy corn soufflé topped with fermented blueberry powder. This sounds fancy, but it tasted like summer in a tiny vial.
Next, my dinner companion and I shared a few appetizers: striped bass crudo, super fresh and bundled up in ribbons of cucumber; pea hummus with ricotta salata; and ricotta, lardo, and honey on toast. What I loved most about this course was that I could easily imagine making that pea hummus at home, serving it with some store-bought taro chips. I could even see improvising on the toast, substituting thinly sliced prosciutto for lardo. The point? The food was elevated but not so far removed from something I could make at home.
For my main course, I opted for pistachio-lavender-crusted lamb rack, with peas, radishes, and labneh. I'm not embarrassed to say: It was so good I picked up the bones to make sure I got every last bite. I also dipped my bread in the labneh, wiping my plate so clean my German grandmother would have been proud.
When it comes to dessert, I am often underwhelmed by the offerings at fine-dining restaurants. Give me good ice cream over an abstract work of art made with fruit powders and gelees any day. But, in the name of research, we nibbled our way through the sweet offerings — budino with a custard-like dipping sauce; cornmeal-brown butter cake with sweet corn ice cream and blackberry compote; peach upside-down cobbler with vanilla crème fraîche. Each bite was better than the last.
There was a clear winner, however: The mixed berry meringue sandwich. All the berries of the season, plus raspberry sorbet and yogurt sabayon sandwiched between two meringue clouds, floating in raspberry coulis and studded with candied pistachios. Give me this sandwich or give me death!
Ready to go? Good news is that if you eat your fill and can't make your way home there are four simply but sweetly furnished rooms upstairs — and a breakfast spread the next morning that will make you swoon all over again.
A caveat: Let me add a small disclaimer or two here. I have not eaten at every restaurant in the state of New York. I have not even eaten at every restaurant on the North Fork of Long Island. That said, I have eaten at a lot of restaurants, including some very, very good ones that are very, very famous for good reason. I would also add that "best" is almost always subjective — and this is the case here. This is my opinion and you may go and you may feel differently! But I don't think you will.